The Facts about HB 645, “The Billboard Bill”

Bill status: HB 645 passed the House on 5/7/2019; on June 26 it was amended in the Senate Transportation Committee. It is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor the week of July 22. Changes have been made to the bill since it was introduced. However, the bill would significantly override the ability of local governments to regulate existing billboards. The bill’s key problems are:

1. Section 4 of the bill adds 136-131.3(b), which would allow billboards that have an NCDOT permit to be rebuilt as a new billboard structure within 250 feet of their current location. (See example below.) The billboard could be converted to a digital billboard and the height could be 50 feet or more, regardless of what is allowed under local ordinances, and trees on public right of way blocking the view of the billboard could be cut down, since local tree protection ordinances would be pre-empted. It is estimated that this provision would allow 5000 or more billboards in North Carolina to be converted to digital and raised in height.

2. Section 4 of the bill adds 136-131.3(a), which would allow any billboard affected by a condemnation action (such as road widening) to be relocated and rebuilt as a new billboard structure within 2 miles of their current location. These “relocated” billboards could be converted to a digital billboard and the height could be increased to 50 feet or more above the roadway. The billboard could be moved to any zoning district “where uses associated with business, industry, commerce, or trade are permitted.” The “relocated” billboards are exempt from local ordinances restricting billboards and cutting of trees and vegetation in front of them. 

3. Section 4 of the bill adds 136-131.3(f), which would prohibit signs from being relocated to an area along a highway where there is an overlay district that prohibits new billboards (referred to as a “view corridor”). However, this section only applies to overlay districts in the territorial limits of municipalities, but not to counties and not to ETJ areas. This section also allows a billboard to be relocated within an overlay district with approval of the municipality. 

4. The bill also bars NCDOT from denying a relocation of outdoor advertising due to presence of vegetation and allows the owner of outdoor advertising to remove vegetation from the “viewing zone” on both the highway right-of-way as well as on private land with landowner consent, regardless of any local laws that limit removal of vegetation. 

DISCUSSION: Reading through the bill, many of these impacts are not obvious. The bill was artfully written by an attorney who specializes in billboard law. A central section of the bill is the definition of “customary use” in Section 2 of the bill. By including the “customary use” language in Section 4 of the bill, state law would override local ordinances because billboard standards would revert to the 1972 agreement between NCDOT and FHWA. That 1972 agreement addresses the type of lighting allowed for billboards. This was tested in federal court in 2016 when a 3 judge panel unanimously found that digitization of billboards was allowed under the definition of “customary use” in the federal-state agreements. The language of the bill in light of that decision would mean that existing billboards with an NCDOT permit (most major roads and freeways in the state) could be rebuilt as digital billboards. And any legal attempt by a local government to stop it would lose. A link to a press release from national outdoor advertising organization on that federal decision is here. There appears to be no other strategic purpose to include the definition of “customary use” in the bill; it is not relocation of condemned billboards, and it is not clearing vegetation at billboards relocated because they were condemned. If the bill is passed with this language there may be other implications of referencing “customary use” in the bill that haven’t been discovered yet (the primary lobbyist for the billboard industry did not even understand that the bill had the impact of allowing wholesale digitization of existing billboards until this explanation was provided to him a few days ago). 

Analysis of HB 645, entitled “Don’t let lawmakers sell out NC’s scenic beauty,” here. 

Under HB 645, this traditional billboard located on Hillsborough Street at the Beltline in Raleigh can be converted to digital and jacked up in height so that it towers 50 feet above the Beltline. If Beltline widening required the billboard to be relocated, the owner could relocate to any commercial or industrial zoned area within two miles of this location, including those areas where billboards are currently not allowed under Raleigh’s ordinance.

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